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Farewell, Velmu!

Today morning it was warm and sunny. Everything had been arranged, I felt peaceful. I fenced a small separate pen and led Velmu into the pen. He enjoyed the sunny morning, grazing hay. He went to splash water in the big bucket of drinking water, gently grabbed the bucket with his mouth and flipped it over, just to play with it. I went to pat him, and he leaned his body in such a way as pointing me to scratch itchy places. After a while I went bit farther, and Velmu continued grazing. Then he lifted his head and turned to look - there was a sound of a car approaching. It was a vet. Despite having chronic pain in his left hip, Velmu quickly walked to the gate to greet the vet. The vet greeted him, and gave him first a dose of tranquilizer, and then put him to final sleep. It all went smoothly, Velmu just laid down and drifted deep into sleep, deeper and deeper until his heart stopped. A neighbouring farmer came to pick up Velmu, he had promised to bury Velmu near a place which has been tradtionally used as a horse cemetary. Farewell, Velmu!

I think it is time for a small memorial speech (and I'm afraid I'm going to repeat some things I've told before, but I know you will understand.)

When I was a kid, our mother had a horse. Riding with a sleigh was often fun, but otherwise I wasn't that interested in it. When I grew older, I started to think about having a horse - to work together with a horse, hauling timber and that kind of things. I appreciated all the traditional skills of working with horses, and felt that I'd like to carry on that tradition. So many of the old skills are forgotten when they are not needed any more in the era of machines. It was winter 2006 when I got my first horse, a black finn-horse gelding called Velmu. Velmu had been trained as a race horse, but had some sort of leg injury which got worse if he had to run fast. So, the owners wanted to sell him to a place where he can do things, but he doesn't have to race. That sounded perfect for me - not only was Velmu big and strong, he also had been trained to ride and to wear a harness.

I only had to refresh some of the stuff I learned when I was a kid - what kind of gestures to use, when I ask the horse to move forward, to stop, to turn left, to turn right. And how to wear the harness, how to attach a sleigh to the harness. Simple things like that, and then we just go do some work, yes? Well, no. I soon realized that even though Velmu often understands my gestures, he might refuse to comply. So what to do then? To punish him of bad behaviour, so that he learns to always do what a human tells - as a human should be the leader? Somehow that didn't feel right, I was thinking that there should be other ways, too.

Well, but since most of the problems were with riding, we managed to learn some proper work - we hauled some logs from the nearby forest, and we tried tilling soil. Together with the practical skills I constantly tried to learn more about training a horse. I adopted some ideas based on western horsemanship - and one of the basic principles was to always try to set the situation so that the horse will soon find it easier to do what he is asked to do. For example, when I tried to ride Velmu, he often refused to leave the yard, and tried to turn back. Instead of punishing him because of that, I just took the inner rein and asked him to turn more, and more, and more. But horses they don't like to walk in small circles - so when Velmu's nose was again heading to the direction where I wanted to go, I released the rein and allowed him to go straight forward. We had to repeat this couple of times, and pretty soon Velmu learned that whenever he tries to turn back he has to do those small circles, but whenever he goes where I ask him to go, he can just walk forward which is more nice. Like that - we left the yard and headed to a forest trail. And before I could react, I realized that Velmu was standing on his hind legs, he made a 180 degree turn, and instantly bolted to full gallop. Somehow I managed to stay mounted, until I rolled into snow just before Velmu reached the barn. Uh oh - sure Velmu had learned my trick, and offered a new reaction which was so quick that it made me realize that I won't win this game.

Because of his willpower Velmu made me to really face the question: what makes a good co-operation? Let's look at it this way: a horse is a prey animal living in a herd. And the survival of the herd largerly depends on the herd's ability to detect and to flee predators. Now, if a rider and a horse go riding on forest trails, they are a herd of two. And from the horse's point of view, the question is "Are we safe? Is that other herd member aware of the surroundings? Can I relax and trust that the other herd member will tell me if there is a reason to flee? Or should I carry the responsibility myself, being alert and bringing the herd to safety whenever I detect a potential threat?" Seen that way, if I want my horse to trust me, I need to be reliable and worth the trust. Which means that it is not only about training a horse, it is more about training myself - to learn the zen of being present in the moment, to breathe and to move in such a way that the horse can see : "oh, that herd member sure is aware of the surroundings and is able to distinguish real threats from false ones - nice, I'll follow him and feel safe."

So, learning the traditional skills of working with a horse had turned into an inner journey, merging into my own process of recovering from chronic depression. It took years to slowly find back some of my confidence and inner peace. And all the time Velmu was there, patiently walking with me - instantly and honestly telling how he saw me, which greatly helped me to unmask many of my own illusions about myself. Also, Velmu was always ready to offer his trust and co-operation when he saw me ready for that. And he was such a clever horse. We didn't use metal bit, instead I had just attached the reins to the sides of an ordinary halter. When we went along the icy roads, Velmu often slowed a bit before a crossroads, and often it was enough to just to say "yes, we turn there", or "let's continue forward", and Velmu chose the right road accordingly, without me touching the reins. One of our finest journeys was when we drove a married couple from the church to the house where they held their celebrations. It was more than 10 km on the countryside dirt roads, with a four wheel wagon.

One summer Velmu was on a pasture together with a mare called Anna. Every day I filled a container with drinking water and checked that the horses are OK. Well, the mare had got rid of her halter. I decided to look for it, and I started to walk around the pasture. The horses stayed near the container, drinking fresh water. Velmu was looking at me, and I started to feel that there is no sense in trying to find that halter - if it was lying somewhere in the grass, I could miss it just by two meters without noticing it. And the pasture was rather big, so it will take me the rest of the day to comb through the whole area. Then I saw Velmu moving, he walked into the middle of the pasture, poked his nose in the grass, and lifted his head, with the halter hanging in his mouth. That time I was sure that the horse actually understood what I was doing, and decided to help. I gave Velmu my warm thanks.

With other horses Velmu was always a leader. But I never saw him bullying other horses, he was always a just and honest leader, trying to keep things calm and smooth. Once there was a young pony gelding, who tried to provocate Velmu. The pony launched kicks towards Velmu's head, but Velmu just barely lifted his head out of reach. The pony tried to bite Velmu's neck, and Velmu dodged, otherwise apparently ignoring the whole show. It was as if he was waiting for the pony to grow tired and to stop, without Velmu needing to tell him to stop. Alas, the pony just kept on provocating, so finally Velmu bared his teeth and made one biting gesture towards the pony. That was enough, the pony went away and Velmu continued minding his own business.

Watching Velmu's behaviour I tried to learn some of his wisdom. Showing leadership by keeping calm no matter what. Never using too big gestures to show my intentions, to keep things smooth and beautiful. Over the years I learned to trust Velmu more and more. I often let him roam free when I was leading Raiku or riding. And when Velmu laid down to rest on a pasture, he allowed me to join him, gently leaning his head on my chest.

Several years ago Velmu suffered an accident - I'm not sure but I think he slipped and fell on ice in their pen. After that he was limping his left hind leg. We went to an animal clinic where they examined the leg, and it turned out that there is something wrong with the hip joint. It seemed like there has already been some chronic problem, which now just got worse because of the accident. Well, slowly Velmu recovered, and I allowed him to retire. No more dragging loads, from that on it was all about friendship and therapy. I was happy about that, thinking that I will keep Velmu as a retired friend until he dies of old age. Around those times I got my second horse, Raiku the young mare. When Raiku came to my place, she was mostly untrained, and not always easy to handle. So, Velmu being retired, I could focus most of my energy on learning to train Raiku (which, once again, proved to be mostly about working with my own personality, so that Raiku could choose to place her trust in me.)

This spring I realized that Velmu's leg is getting worse. Somehow I felt that now it is beyond cure, so I made the decision and started to arrange things. The practical side was easy to arrange, as the vet was anyway coming to visit the nearby farm, and the farmer promised to help with the actual burial. But since I think Raiku should have company, I needed a new horse. As I have told, I went to see couple of horses - and then one of my neighbours asked if I could host one of their horses. I needed a new horse, and my neighbours needed a new home for their horse - it was an easy deal to make. For a while I had three horses at my place, and soon they all seemed to get along pretty well. So, Velmu could go in peace, and Raiku was left together with a new horse.

Farewell, Velmu! It was such a gift to get to know a horse like you, such a pleasure to live through all the adventures we had!

Velmu pulling a sleigh
Velmu pulling a sleigh
Velmu preparing to pull a wagon
Velmu preparing to pull a wagon
Friendship. Picture by Sanni airaksinen
Friendship. Picture by Sanni airaksinen
The last picture of Velmu.
The last picture of Velmu.
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horses
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Comments

Ah my condolences. It is always difficult to lose a treasured animal. He was a fine looking horse!

I buried my most favorite cat last night as well. Sigh.

Yes. Death is a natural part of life, but of course it makes one sad for a while.

Many hugs, he was a handsome horse x

A very nice tribute sir.

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